When the Arts Council asked how organisations would respond to the five ambitions set out in their 10-year strategy, a group of eight programmers and producers based across the south east of England saw the possibility to put into practice a more generous, collaborative model for touring theatre.
We have always felt the challenge is less about artists making work (which is in many ways the easy part) but how artists make a living from the things they produce. So we wanted to explore ways of better connecting the first two ambitions of the Arts Council in their long-term plan: supporting artists and building audiences. We believe that if we achieve both we might go some way towards meeting the third of their ambitions, creating resilience.
Firstly, and most importantly, the eight organisations agreed that whatever we did, it couldn’t be about us. We would act as a steering group, House, to work with all those good and purposeful communities and organistions that have an appetite for building an audience for theatre, but who sit outside the new national portfolio arts infrastructure.
Secondly, we agreed to be programmer lead. While many of us continue to produce and support artists, the steering committee is going to start by identifying the ambitions and challenges of venues and work from there.
Thirdly and finally, we intend to be demand led. We will start a conversation with every part of the east and south east of England and work with those who want to work with us.
Since April, more than 100 venues have joined us, across every scale and part of the region. We began by asking them what challenges they faced in building an audience for theatre – money, of course, is a factor, as is the availability of suitable work and the amount of time and expertise needed.
What struck us though was how inconsistent the picture was. Some venues are presenting contemporary work in the most unfashionable of places and attracting an audience. Other well-resourced ventures struggle or had stopped programming theatre altogether (including one that still retains “playhouse” in their name).
Some of what we are doing is taking touring models that have worked in the past and exploring how we might use them now, such as the old guarantee against loss schemes. Many venues shy away from fees, choosing to offer box office splits and minimising their risk. At the same time companies budget on fees – knowing already they are subsidising what they might recoup for a performance.
We have set out to create a model in which both the touring company and venue worry less about money and more about developing a shared ambition. To do that, we are underwriting the fees of a range of work and taking a percentage of the box office in return. We expect things of the company and venue, such as programmers being there on the night, ensuring venues have publicity in advance, sharing intelligence about the audience and so on. It has quickly become apparent which organisations are able and willing to get an audience, and which need additional support.
We are encouraging and investing in groups of programmers to co-commission work for their audience in the belief that this will better connect the ambitions of both. In this first year we have invested in six venues to commission and work with Transport Theatre to make a production of As You Like It for next autumn. No doubt other ideas will follow.
Finally we will work at building the regional ecology. This summer we took 30 programmers to Edinburgh to see and talk about work together. Others have demonstrated the value of using a digital platform to strengthen the relationship between artists, venues and audiences. Both Theatre Bristol and the National Theatre of Wales feel like they are driven by the arts community itself – housetheatre.org.uk is our way of starting the same conversations across the east and south east of England.
It’s worth saying that we are feeling our way as we go along, based on an unshakable belief that we need to do something to better distribute the best theatre. It makes economic, artistic and organisational sense. If we get to more people, or think of new ideas or find better way of achieving our ambition, we will adapt and change.
Gavin Stride is a member of the House steering group and the director ofFarnham Maltings – follow him on Twitter @gavstride. This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To get more articles like this direct to your inbox, sign up free to become a member of the Culture Professionals Network. This article was also posted on the Guardian website.